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Not 16' Say no to cell
- Telecom unit proposes mystifying cut-off age

New Delhi, Aug. 28: Children below 16 years should be discouraged from using mobile phones, a government-affiliated cell has said, claiming the gadgets could be a health risk.

Leading international health agencies, though, say there is no scientific evidence of such risk.

Draft guidelines prepared by the Telecom Engineering Centre, which is under the department of telecommunications (DoT), say the antennae used by telecom operators radiate radio-frequency electromagnetic waves, which heat up tissues and may harm people.

“The tissues of children are tender and, therefore, they are likely to be more affected,” the draft says.

A senior brain scientist who has not been involved with cellphone research said the cut-off age seemed inexplicable.

“I don’t understand why 16 years is the magic cut-off,” said Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, director of the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, Haryana.

“We’re born with 100 billion neurons, and the connections between them are made and broken throughout one’s lifetime.”

The connections that govern each faculty have critical periods spanning a range of ages. Those related to speech continue to develop till a person is 12, and those dealing with higher mental processes, such as reasoning, till the age of 21, she said.

Government officials said the DoT was unlikely to issue formal directives to telecom operators or mobile-phone manufacturers based on the draft’s recommendations. “The lack of concrete evidence linking mobile-phone use and damage to health means these guidelines are speculative,” said G.K. Chakrapani, country general manager, enterprise solutions, Nokia.

The draft notes that the World Health Organisation’s investigations into whether mobile use harms people have been inconclusive.

But it says, “The WHO has suggested a precautionary approach…. (which) countries such as Canada, the US, the EU, Australia, Japan and China have implemented in different forms.”

Animal studies linking radio-frequency waves to tumours have been controversial because the animals received highly unrealistic exposures or were already susceptible to developing cancer.

The US Food and Drug Administration has said the available evidence does not show a danger to wireless-phone users of whatever age.

More studies are under way, but some governments have in the past advised that children be discouraged from using wireless phones.

Britain distributed leaflets with such a recommendation seven years ago after experts said children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure.

The UK report had proposed that the mobile industry should not promote cellphone use among children.

The DoT guidelines say the electromagnetic field around base-station antennae may be harmful to people and maintenance staff. So, the installations of these antennae need to be regulated.

But an official with a leading mobile operator said, “Base stations or telecom towers are installed in areas where they would not inconvenience the public. These towers can be accessed only by maintenance staff, who use proper equipment and gear.”

Cellphone use has grown at a scorching pace in India, with the number of subscribers expected to cross 25 crore by end-2007, doubling to 50 crore by end-2010. This may lead to a mushrooming of base-station antennae, the draft says.

It adds that handset makers should provide the specific absorption rate (SAR) — a measure of the radio-wave energy absorbed by the body during cellphone use — for each handset on their websites and user manuals.

“But most manufacturers, including Nokia, Motorola and LG, already provide the SAR value on their websites,” a government official said.

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